Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It's All About the Fluff....and the Bugs..and Collecting the Seeds

This post is all about milkweed!  And all the things I didn't know until this year about what comes along with the milkweeds besides just the monarchs.

If you have been reading our blog you know that last year we attempted starting from seed several varieties of milkweed native to our zone to share with our membership.  Last June, lots of pots of baby milkweed plants went home with members.  Some planted theirs directly into the ground; some (like me) kept theirs in pots all summer and covered with mulch through the winter.  Those that planted theirs directly into the ground seemed to have the best luck.  Their plants grew, survived a fairly cold winter and flourished this year; blooming and now developing pods and going to seed.  Several photos of those are on the other individual milkweed posts in this blog.   A large percentage of mine survived, but are still very small.  I also found that the ones in pots were VERY slow breaking dormancy.  In fact I had given up on some, but fortunately did not throw out the pots,  In mid June several of the remaining ones that looked dead finally burst forth.  Moral of the story:  don't give up on them.  Ever!  You just never know.  I will put them into the ground soon.  We have had a very hot, humid, rainy summer here which they should like a lot.

My prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) that I purchased and put in last year from seedlings took off this year.  They grew to be 5'-6' tall and bloomed in late June/July.  Seed pods developed and I am now collecting seed to send to Shirley Meniece. 

But first - THE BUGS!  I learned last year from my few plants that aphids and milkweed bugs are also attracted to milkweeds.  This year the plants are covered with them. has some suggestions about what to do with heavy infestations of aphids.  Milkweed bugs are a different story and I've visited several sites to get more information.  The 'bad' bug sites all encourage insecticide spraying to control - but why would I do that!  One blog says get rid of them, one blog says they are OK.  Missouri Botanical Garden has a posting.   A Galveston, TX master gardener/extension blogger at TexasAM Extension considers them beneficial.  One last site that I enjoyed is the Stewardship Garden. 

So, you will have to decide on your own.  Since I do not yet have eggs on my leaves, I think I will hit them with some sprays of water and maybe the detergent/water spray.  They have not spread to any adjacent plants.  In fact, when I collect the pods and scrape out the seeds the bugs seem to come from within the pods.  I did have a few of the bugs last year and am not too worried, except that they are very numerous this year. 


Aphids, small and large milkweed bugs.

 On to the pods - my pods are splitting open and I need to collect.  Many of them are all the way open and seeds already heading off in the wind. 

I've collected loads of pods to share at Shirley Meniece and with our members.  Here's what I have learned!

Gathering the seeds.  It's best to collect either when they are just about to open or slightly open.  It's a lot easier to separate the seeds from the fluff which is actually called floss.  Did you know that the floss was collected during WWII and used in life jackets and is still used today in pillows? (Washington Post 2012 article) . I tried a few yesterday inside and my 1 year old puppy had a ball.  The ones I tried to get seeds from were fully open, very dry and very fluffy and within a few seconds the floss was floating across the countertops, catching on to my clothes AND provided great entertainment for him to jump and catch.  Last year he attacked and ate the butterflies, this year only the floss so we are making progress.

Ziggy loves the floss!  A great game for him.

This was going to take forever to separate the seeds from the floss so I turned to Google.  Several options were offered. The most popular seemed to be putting into a brown bag, adding a few coins and shaking.  I tried that but it only partially worked and many of the seeds seemed damaged by the heavy coins.  So, I elected to try another way.

Another options was getting the pods a little earlier in their development, holding tight to the floss and just pulling down in the direction that the seeds were facing.  This worked well and I cleaned a dozen pods in a few minutes.  Photos are below.  The technique that worked the best though was purely accidental.  I went out this morning to recreate the "fluffy dog scene" and picked a few pods that were almost all the way open with floss sticking out.  We had a lot of rain last night and the pods were still damp.  I took them inside, opened them and expected them to explode with floss everywhere.  The floss was still damp though and stuck together; the seeds pulled right off in a second.  No mess!  So, accidental learning sometimes works the best.  The seeds are now drying on the counter and I will package after they have thoroughly dried out.

Remember to store your seeds in a cool place in a paper envelope or bag; not plastic baggies.  A refrigerator will do; but not the freezer. And for tips on propagating refer back to our milkweed propagation page. Remember these seeds need stratification and the coffee filter method suggested to us by Prairie Moon Nursery was great!

I hope you will share with us some of your seed collecting experiences!  The monarchs have not arrived here yet as it is early and I am expecting to see some by September 1.  I was in Greenbrier County, WV a week ago though and a few monarchs were already appearing and lots of eggs on the underside of the leaves.   Check your garden and let us know.

My collection of pods in various stages.

I am holding this one by the stem end with the tip to the right.
See how the seeds are facing my fingers - you want to turn the pod the
other direction to easily detach the seeds from the floss.

Holding now by tip end, with stem end facing down.
See how the seeds now point down toward the white paper I am using
to collect my seeds on.

Close up showing seed direction.

Pull in direction of A to B.
Seeds and floss are still slightly damp which will prevent
the floss from scattering everywhere.  I will leave the seeds on a
paper towel to completely dry out before packaging.
Seeds should be stored in a cool place such as a refrigerator, but
not in the freezer.
 Look at all the seeds gathered from the pods in less than 5 minutes using this method.

This is a LOT of seeds from a few pods.
Ready to go in the seed share envelopes.